An Inside Joke is a Tech Noir story set in a nightmarish world where crime is rampant and mega-corporations rule. A beleaguered detective, manipulated by the rich and powerful, wades through human misery to discover who is killing them. All the while, he can’t shake the feeling that his efforts are being blocked by the very people he’s trying to protect…
Brandt began by planting Alex’s gun on his desk. Woods looked down at it, then back at him.
“Snider was asking me about that again.”
“Yeah? Asking what?” Brandt said.
“Asking me why you still carry it around. ‘Bullets are gone. Pretty soon you won’t even be able to buy ‘em as antiques’ he was saying.”
“He should ask me himself then shouldn’t he? You know why.” Brandt said. He snatched the gun back up and put it back in the holster underneath his arm.
And you can stop trying to make chit-chat when I’ve been here for sixteen hours already. This had better be good.
“So come on. Why am I here? What’s so important?” Brandt said. Woods grabbed the remote off the desk and switched on the flatscreen mounted on the right wall. The image flickered until Woods went over and smacked the side of the TV. It flashed up the profile image of a man in an expensive suit and tidy hair. Late thirties, blue eyes, steely gaze and a shave so close it looked like he hadn’t even started growing any. He had a dimple on the left side of his chin, and a mole just above his right eyebrow. Woods turned to Brandt and pointed his thumb over his shoulder.
“Dead.” He said.
“So?” Brandt sipped his tea and grimaced. It had gone cold. He spat it back into the cup.
“So, he’s Stephen Bryson, one of the board members at Onuris.”
“Oh great. Our lords and saviours.” Brandt said.
“Yeah. He’s the fifth one to bite it in two months.”
“Well maybe when they’re all gone we’ll have world peace. Christ knows we’ll have some. Didn’t they all die of some illness or something?”
“So they say. Apparently so did Bryson here.” Woods pressed remote again and the wall dissolved into a grainy photo of the same man lying on a black tiled floor. His face was pallid. Blackened veins visible underneath his skin. The flesh on his forehead had stretched thin and he would have looked mummified if it wasn’t for the fact the muscles underneath hadn’t dried out yet. Whatever killer illness it was, it had wasted his hands away into talons and his jaw fell open like he was screaming.
A shudder ran down Brandt’s spine. “Jesus.” He said. He folded his arms.
“I know. Wanna know the best bit?”
“He’s only been dead an hour here.”
“Yeah right. He’s been dead a week at least. What’s it matter? If there’s something killing off the rich and greedy then it’s for the better. Saves us putting up with them at any rate.” Brandt raised his cup in a toast, then and after a deep breath, tipped the cold tea down his throat and wiped the sides of his mouth.
“I don’t disagree, but Superintendent says he got the call and we need to investigate.”
“Yeah, he would.”
“Well, you’d know better than anyone.” Woods turned back to the flatscreen and cycled through some more stills of Bryson’s corpse. “Anyway, if things carry on, we might not have to put up with him much longer.” He muttered.
“Oh come one. You don’t believe one that do you? They’re not gonna scrap the police force.”
“Why not? The whole ‘Onuris contract’ thing? It’s the start of it, man. Face it.”
“Woods, on the phone you said this was a murder, so I got out of bed and came. Besides, what’s changed their tune? They kept us out of the loop on the other deaths. Wouldn’t even let us in the building.” Brandt said. He put the cup down on the desk.
“Because a disease doesn’t leave gunshot marks all over the walls.”
“Oh, so he was shot as well?”
“For fuck sake Alistair, just tell me straight.” Brandt frowned at Woods.
“OK, alright. He died at his office.”
“Just like that?”
“Yeah apparently. Just like that.” Woods snapped his fingers.
Brandt gave a long sigh. “So why’d they call us then? They’ve got their own private security to look into it for them. Everyone up there has.”
“I dunno, maybe they just felt like it.” Woods shrugged his shoulders.
“Alright, let’s get over there then before Onuris’ own teams get their mitts on it. Christ.”
“Well they called us this time, so I imagine they’ll wait for us.”
“It doesn’t add up at all.”
“I know. It’s gonna be a weird one.” Woods switched off the TV as Brandt buttoned up his jacket.
They decided to take Woods’ car. After a few tries the engine groaned and Woods pulled out of the car-park onto the skylane. Glass skyscrapers sprawled around them, all connected by the network of skylanes and walkways. Around them, the billboards and bars and clubs and casinos and restaurants all blazed in neon colours. They blurred together in the rain and reflected off the wet surfaces, colouring Woods’ car bonnet. Brandt sighed as he looked over all the suits out on the walkways. Most of them half-cut teenagers and twenty-somethings out to spend their millions. He watched a gang of them pick up a woman in a sparkling dress and dark nylons- an escort from the dark blue Porsche she was lying across the bonnet of. She laid herself flat on a nearby bench for them, spread her arms and legs out, then let them all pour bottles of champagne all over her. She seemed to enjoy it more than they did.
Because she’ll get more for that one stunt than I make in a year I’ll bet.
And he was right. The woman got up, shook the wine out of her hair, and collected a thick roll of notes from each of them. She gave them all a peck on the cheek and walked back to the car, cash in hand. The suits all laughed, big grins on them, and carried on up the walkway to the next late night bar. They had it to spare.
As Brandt expected, traffic was barely moving. A metre or two every minute at best. As they sat waiting he looked over the edge of the skylane and could just about see the Lower-City below. Pitch-black for the most part. Some lights blinked on and off and Brandt wondered what the people in those flats were up to. Activities down there at this time of night were rarely charitable. As well as the dingy nightclubs and the brothels, Brandt heard rumour there were places down there where kidnapped women were kept drugged-up and customers were given time with them in a booth. Fuck farms they were called, and they did, or didn’t exist depending on who you asked. A simple affair: Quick in-and-out, try not to hit her too hard, other than that you could do what you wanted, try not to make a mess, clean yourself up, and get out.
Brandt looked over places he knew were whore houses and drug dens. Their lights were on. A bit further out, the fire at the warehouse was still going.
Doubt anybody actually went. Why would they? It’s fucking suicide. Firemen will probably get killed for just trying to put it out.
“How’s things with you and Kayleigh?” Woods killed the silence.
“She’s doing just fine.” Brandt said.
Brandt rested his head on the glass and closed his eyes, letting the vibration of the engine go through him as that cold nausea crept into his stomach again. He knew he wouldn’t throw up though. He’d not eaten anything in nearly twelve hours.
“Thing is, Woods, I can’t figure why I agreed to this open-relationship shit. Hell it was my idea for fuck’s sake, and I only suggested it as an offhand thing. She’s out there flaunting it all the time, and I… Well, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what helps. She gets worse every day. She rarely talks to me and now when she does I’m the enemy all the time.”
“I don’t get it. I mean, it’s not like you’ve ever hurt her.” Woods said.
“No, I’ve never hit her.”
“So I can’t figure out the problem. Have you tried asking her?”
“She just flares up.”
“Well you know, you could try-”
“Actually Woods, you know, I don’t wanna talk about it.”
“Alright. We’re nearly there anyway.”
The few inches between them succumbed to silence. Brandt didn’t mind if it kept him from carrying on the conversation.
I’ve never hit her. I did hurt her though.
The Onuris building came into view. It stood taller than the adjacent ‘scrapers, two hundred and ninety floors, and the top thirty floors leaned inwards like a pyramid. As one of the tallest in the city, the top twenty floors were linked to to the others that high up by the Platinum Monorail. Woods took a turn onto the road that circled the building, then went inside the carpark on the hundred and ninetieth.
CCTV dotted almost every post. Woods whistled as he drove through the gallery of hood ornaments on chrome black cars. It was like a showroom for soft-top beamers, six-figure sports cars and limousines. All spoilers and pristine hood ornaments, and all the trimmings from an umbrella holder in the door to a champagne cooler in the back.
“They probably blow more than we make in a month just on keeping them things shiny.” Brandt said.
“To be fair, Rich, that ain’t much.” Woods said.
Brandt laughed and looked out at the dust and dirt that Woods’ bonnet had collected over the years. “Jesus, Alistair, you never got that hole patched up?” Brandt pointed at where the paint around the gunshot mark was burned black.
“What’s the point? I patch it up, someone else puts it back in.”
“Well, at least they haven’t learned to shoot through the glass yet.”
“Yeah, don’t give them any ideas though, Rich.”
The ache was creeping back into Brandt’s shoulder. It told him the N-Dine was running out of his system. It’d be a few hours yet before he’d need to shoot up again. For now though it was dull enough to ignore.
Woods drove around countless levels of the car park before he found one unreserved spot tucked away in the far corner. Unlit and almost unnoticeable like it was saved for visitors they didn’t particularly want.
Four security guards were already in the lobby, dressed from shoulder to shin in dark blue Kevlar plating. Two of them carried carbine rifles while another two slung sub-machine guns under their arms. Each one had a sidearm strapped to his leg. Brandt and Woods were met by the two closest just outside the door. Their weapons were taken from them immediately. The guard that stood closest to them patted the grip of his machine gun.
This is gonna be interesting. Might even live to tell people about it if we’re real lucky.
Kelly yawned as the two detectives approached. He’d had his feet up on the desk so long they’d gone numb, and was watching cartoons on the tablet on his thigh. It was another uneventful night shift in a long string of uneventful night shifts. He didn’t even bother to look up at them as he told them they could have their guns back after they signed out. When the guard handed him Alex’s gun though, he sat up and took his feet off the desk so fast he almost dropped the tablet on the floor. He turned the gun over in his hand and ran his fingers over the scratched, once shiny metal, then looked at Brandt with a raised eyebrow.
“Really? A three-fifty-seven?” He said.
“What’s your point?”
Kelly smirked “Nothin’. Just saying. Should be worth quite a bit soon, man. Just in time for retirement, huh?” Kelly laughed as he opened up the cylinders. “No shit, it’s actually got bullets in it. Where’d you get ‘em? Come on, man, I gotta know. You got a secret stash from the good old days, or somethin’?”
Brandt didn’t reply. What he wanted to say wouldn’t go down so well with so many guns in the room. When the kid realised he wasn’t going to answer out of him he put the gun down. Wood’s gun came next and Kelly handled it with less enthusiasm.
“Zero-three-three. Standard police calibre. Forty-two standard magnesium flechette mag’. Basic. One of our older models. Standard. From the first year we started outfitting you guys, right?” Kelly said, pointing between the police department markings on the grip and Onuris’ pyramid logo engraved just underneath the slide.
“No idea.” Woods leaned his elbow on the desk, facing away from him. He glanced over at Brandt who rolled his eyes.
“It wasn’t a question. It is. I got a better one right here” Kelly patted his leg. “Same year too. Wanna see?”
Woods snapped back “You’re a little eager, aren’t you? A gun’s a gun, kid. They all do the same thing. There’s no need to get all excited over it. Christ, you sound like a virgin looking at his first tit.”
Kelly said nothing, but his smirk dropped. The guards moved the detectives on towards the white corridor at the opposite end. Just before the doors closed behind them, Brandt looked back and saw Kelly putting his feet back up on the desk. He was holding Alex’s gun.
Proof of ID was demanded at the first security door. Woods and Brandt showed the guards what they needed and told them their details. Then after answering a few security questions they were led through to a second door where they were given a questionnaire each that took ten minutes to complete. Then they were led twenty feet to another door.
“Place your finger onto the scanner please.” The guard didn’t even look up from his desk.
“Another one? Is this really necessary?” Brandt asked.
“I said place your finger onto-”
“And I said it this shit really necessary? We’re not armed, you’ve seen our ID, we filled out your fucking quiz. Just let us in.”
The guard lowered his hand, letting it hover around the handgun strapped to his thigh. He whispered: “Just put your finger on the scanner, or leave. Your call.”
Brandt clenched his jaw to hold back telling the guy he could go fuck himself when Woods put a hand on his shoulder. “C’mon Brandt, we got a job to do. We’ll dance their dance this one time, then we’ll withhold all the information and make them beg for it for a change.”
The guard made a big fake smile and said: “Quite. Now, if you don’t mind. The scanner.”
Brandt did as he was told and shoved his finger onto the scanner. He couldn’t take his eyes off the guard’s smirk. Once their fingerprints were verified they were shown to a waiting area and told that security was making its final verification.
The waiting room was a holding cell.
They were locked in and the only bits of furniture were two metal chairs in the middle of the room. The walls were sterile white and two spotlights shone down from the ceiling and made the room stuffy. Woods sat down whilst Brandt walked the length of the one-way mirror that stretched across the wall.
“Come on Woods, let’s just go in. They’ve got their verification. They’re just fucking with us so we’ll leave and leave them the investigation. Bureaucratic bullshit.”
Woods didn’t say anything.
“What time is it?”
Woods pulled up his sleeve. “Just gone midnight, why?”
“Just wondering.” Brandt yawned.
I bet he’s still there. Doubt she’d even notice if I didn’t come home tonight.
She won’t even know I’m gone.
“What do you reckon happened? I mean you saw that photo. Ghastly shit.” Woods asked.
“I know. Not been able to get it out of my head.”
“Don’t know,” Brandt pointed at the large glass screen. “But I reckon they’re listening, so let’s talk later.” Woods nodded.
Ten minutes passed and both of them were getting agitated about that fact when the doors opened and the same two guards led them through to a lift that took them to the crime scene.
Brandt scraped his finger over the dusted bits of the plaster where the magnesium flechette round had hit the pillar had burnt it up. The round had bored in deep and as he peered into the narrow hole, he could just about see the rebar underneath it.
“Where’s the gun that did this?” He asked. None of the Onuris guards or paramedics answered him. Woods didn’t either. He was too busy with the body, which was already sealed up in a bag, ready for the morgue.
Two-hundred and forty-five floors up, Steve Bryson had dropped dead in the centre of a wide open lobby with the Onuris’ pyramid logo emblazoned white across the black tiles. Aside from a few plants and Chinese vases, the décor was either white or black. A few doors led to offices which were partitioned with dark glass, and at the far end was a cubicle-farm where Brandt figured people did all the leg-work for the ones in those offices for less money.
A zero or two less maybe. Not that it makes that much of a difference. Everyone’s already in the millions this high up.
Brandt joined Woods over by the body. Looking down at the body bag brought to mind the photo Woods showed him earlier, and he shuddered to think what Bryson looked like in there now.
I wonder what he was doing down here before he died. We’re high up, sure, but we’re below the Platinum Monorail line. This is like mingling with the riff-raff for someone like him.
“It’s already been checked over by Onuris’ forensics.” Woods said, gesturing to the body bag.
Guess they couldn’t wait for us to get here after all. Bastards. Trusting them isn’t going to get us anywhere.
Their paramedics were hanging out over by the reception desk near the elevators, chatting away to each other as they waited for him and Woods to finish up.
Let’s just have a look for ourselves then.
He knelt by the body and nodded to Woods, who nodded back and walked over to the paramedics and the security. Brandt waited. When they were all watching Woods he covered his nose with his sleeve, and unzipped the body-bag.
The sewage smell of putrefaction plumed and even through his sleeve he could still smell it. Even on an empty stomach, Brandt fought not to throw up.
Jesus christ, he’s worse now than in the photo. It’s been what, two hours? He looks like he’s been dead for months.
Security guards rushed over. They grabbed Brandt and wrestled him away from the corpse.
“What do you think you’re doing?” The guard holding his right arm said.
“My job. Look, he’s already open now, so we might as well have a look.”
The guards whispered to each other behind him, then let him go. They backed away from the corpse and as Woods came over, one of them knocked into his shoulder as he passed. Woods looked back at him, but didn’t say anything.
There’s a first.
Brandt turned back to Bryson. He prodded his double-breasted jacket with his pen. The buttons were still fastened up and his tie was still tight inside his collar.
He still looks like a smug bastard.
“I’d say poor dead mister Bryson here was leaving the office for the night when it happened. Apparently he’d been complaining of a cough for the last few days.” Woods said.
A cough… A fucking cough? I’ve seen people cough their guts up before, but coughs don’t do this. He’s only been dead three hours tops and his skin’s already rotted away and the muscle tissue’s turned black.
Brandt turned away and left Bryson lying exposed. He didn’t want to look at it any more than he had to.
“The other board members die the same way?” Brandt said. Woods attention was caught in the dead man’s wide open eyes. Brandt asked again.
“Urm, yeah, that’s what I gathered from the Paramedics over there. They’re Onuris staff too. They didn’t say it explicitly though, but they didn’t exactly deny it neither. I’ll check with the hospitals when we get back, but I doubt they were actually taken to one and I doubt Onuris are gonna tell us anything.” He nodded over at the security guard by one of the glass doors who was watching them and muttering something into his earpiece.
“Onuris don’t seem to like people knowing too much about them. I feel like I’m meeting the in-laws again.”
“Well he must have had some sort of disease.” Woods gestured to the body.
“You reckon that’s what killed him?”
“I would, but that doesn’t explain the burns and gunshots all over the walls.”
“You’re right.” Brandt brushed his fingers over his oncoming beard. “Bryson wasn’t shot. His clothes are unmarked. Maybe he was doing the shooting?”
“So what killed him?”
“Only leads back to the disease, whatever it is.”
“Maybe it’s some dodgy thing they’ve cooked up here, you reckon? Accidentally got out?”
Brandt thought for a moment. “A bit thin. Wouldn’t put it past ‘em. If something like that got out though, the whole place would be quarantined. We sure as shit wouldn’t be here. You really think they’d let outsiders know?”
“Maybe the bastard went crazy and started shooting up the place as he was dying.”
Could be. Most likely is, but why don’t I believe it?
“You know where the gun is that made these?” Brandt asked, nodding towards the burns that pockmarked the walls.
Woods shrugged his shoulders.
They kept it for themselves.
“Cloak and dagger bullshit.” Brandt said.
“I asked that while you were checking out the wall and they said they weren’t on shift when it happened. They don’t know.”
“So what are we expected to do eh? Go home, stick our thumbs up our asses and wait for someone else to be murdered, just so’s we can go through the same motions again?” Brandt sighed.
“Looks like.” Woods nodded.
“Fuck sake.” Brandt took a deep breath and forced himself to calm down. After he’d calmed down he realised his hand had worked its way inside his pocket. Just the feel of the plastic case in there made his pulse quicken. He let go of it and took his hand out.
Brandt went over to the paramedics. “I want this whole scene untouched. We’re handling it now.”
“If you say so. What about the body. Shall we leave that there too?”
“Actually, yeah. Good idea. Leave him there. Set up a tent to cordon it off and just leave it there. Thanks for the advice.” Brandt turned to leave.
“What’s the point?” The paramedic said. Brandt, still stewing over the entry process to this place, snapped back at him.
“The point is your people called us. That makes it ours. Our jurisdiction. Not yours. It’s my crime scene so we’ll do it my way. That’s the point. That’s all you need to understand.”
Brandt headed back over to Woods and the body.
“One of them gave you the finger behind your back.” Woods said.
“So what do you reckon?” Woods whispered.
Brandt looked around to make sure nobody was close enough to listen in. “Nobody’s said a word to us about what happened. They just led us into a room and showed us a body. One they’ve already cased too. If there’s any evidence they’ve already got it. I think they know something and they don’t want us to know, even if it’s only how the guy died. Wouldn’t be surprised if they know more. They probably know what killed all the others too, but they’ll never tell us on their own prerogative. We’ll either have to go around them, or force them.”
“What I can’t figure is why they called us at all. Like you said, there’s no co-operation. Their private security’s like a small army. You’re not telling me they can’t investigate it themselves.”
“I don’t know. I think it’s safe to assume they are doing.”
Woods sighed and said: “I hate this shit already.”
They left the lobby and rode the lift down to the security tunnel. Once past the checkpoints Brandt snatched Alex’s gun back from Kelly and fit it under his arm. The hammer jabbed into his ribs again and sometimes it hurt, but he felt better for knowing it was there. Kelly sniggered at the old gun again. Brandt didn’t like it, but he didn’t say anything.
They both left.
“Well that was a waste of time. What about you?” Woods lit a cigarette and took a deep drag. “Want one?” He offered Brandt the cig he’d just lit. Brandt took it and said thanks. He smoked half of it in one go.
“Can’t afford to start smoking again yet?”
“Not yet. Wish I could.”
“I can’t understand where your money goes so fast, man.” Woods said.
It’s not complicated at all. I can’t afford the smokes and the drugs. I’m not made of money and it’s not as if Kayleigh has any coming in.
I wonder if those cameras in there saw me going for it?
“Blame the wife. It’s what I’d do.”
Brandt looked back at the doors. The two guards on duty kept their eyes on them. Above the detectives, the security cameras unsubtly followed them.
Somebody in there knows more than they’re letting on.
They got in Woods’ car. Brandt smoked the cig down to the tab and flicked it out of the window. They both sniggered as it landed on the chrome black finish of the adjacent vehicle.
Woods steered through the car park and out onto the skylane, straight into a line of traffic.
“Think I’m gonna look up one of the board members tomorrow. See what they have to say.”
“Good luck.” Woods replied.
Fine, I’ll do it on my own. You go home to your whore.
The traffic stretched on in front and behind them for at least half a mile. Woods turned off the engine and lit another cig. “Well, reckon we’re gonna be here for a while.”
Brandt turned to look at the traffic behind them and winced as a pain flared up in his shoulder again. It wasn’t just in the skin or the muscle this time, but in the bones too, and it shot all the way down from his shoulder to his fingertips and back up again.
“Yeah I’m fine.” He said, pulling his neck tight to fight against it the pain. “Reckon the dressing just needs changing or something.”
“Why, what happened?”
Brandt opened his jacket and showed Woods his shoulder. The shoulder of his shirt was dark red now, not just spots anymore. He pressed his hand on it and felt blood warm leak down his arm. “I got shot earlier on, just after noon.”
“Jesus Christ! What happened? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because it’s fine.”
“I’m your partner, Rich.” Woods yelled at him.
“Yeah, you’re not my fucking wife.” Brandt snapped back.
“You should tell me when shit like this happens. Who was it?”
“No idea.” Brandt managed to say. He let go of the dressing and sat straight. His arm was trembling. He needed something. Painkillers, N-Dine, a smack in the mouth, anything to take his mind off it.
“So, where is the guy who shot you?”
“I dunno. He ran off. I asked to search his bag and his buddy pulled a gun out from behind his back and shot me. I went down. I saw them running away, but it was a big crowd. By the time I got up they could’ve been anywhere. I was only out to get something to eat too, but he looked nervous. Kept checking his phone, then his bag. Then this other guy came along, they turned around, one kid passed the bag to the other under the table, so I went over there.”
“Jesus…” Woods sighed. “Do me a favour though. Let me in on this stuff in future.”
Brandt said nothing.
“Richard?” Woods yelled.
“OK! For fuck sake. You sound like a wife.”
Who didn’t even ask how my day was, never mind this. And she saw the dressing too.
Woods shook his head and sighed. Brandt wasn’t listening.